The best nonfiction books of 2019

Chris Schluep on December 11, 2019
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The nonfiction pool is a big one, and you can either dip your toe in or plunge headfirst. For those who want to dive into all our picks, you can see the full list of our Best Nonfiction Books of 2019 here.

Below is a selection of our Best Nonfiction Books of 2019, which highlights the breadth and individual quality that publishers produced in 2019, along with our reviews of those works. It was a good year for nonfiction. Whether you are just looking to get your foot wet or you plan to bathe in all the glory that nonfiction had to offer this year (maybe I've taken this metaphor too far), we hope you enjoy our list.

Happy reading.



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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Casey Cep’s Furious Hours is composed of many parts, and any one of those parts would make a good book. Together, they make a great book, describing the elements of a gothic true crime set in the south, and then placing Harper Lee there to cover the trial and write about it. When relatives of the Reverend Willie Maxwell started dying in the 1970s, many locals suspected him of practicing voodoo. The police thought otherwise, noting that Maxwell had taken out life insurance policies on the deceased relatives; still, for years Maxwell managed to evade punishment. Justice eventually caught up with the Reverend when a relative shot him dead at his stepdaughter’s funeral. And that’s where Harper Lee comes in. Lee, who had assisted her friend Truman Capote in researching In Cold Blood, wanted to observe the vigilante’s trial with the idea of writing a book about it. Furious Hours sets one of our most beloved authors in an Alabama courtroom to watch the drama unfold. Then Cep describes the years when Harper Lee reportedly tried to write about the case. This is a story concerned with justice and the truth, but it is also about art, mystery, and our darkest temptations. —Chris Schluep



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Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

Stephanie Land lifts the rug on the life of the working poor in her eye-opening book, Maid. She is writing about the people who clean our homes, who tend to our yards—yet so often these workers go unseen and their stories untold. As a single mother, Stephanie Land cares for herself and her young daughter through a complicated system of government assistance programs and through employment as a house cleaner. Her experience with government aid programs magnifies their worst inconsistency: how difficult is it for people to become self-sufficient when they are reliant on child care and food assistance credit in order to work and live, yet even the smallest increase in income can mean a significant loss of benefits. Land doesn’t have family or friends who could help her financially. They just don’t have it to give. She is truly on her own, yet using a food assistance card at the grocery store checkout has earned her scorn and judgement from strangers who think anyone using the system is abusing the system. Land is a fighter—her desire to create a better life for her daughter is what drives her to keep trying to dig her way out of poverty, working long hours for low pay, and grasping what kindnesses she receives like a life line. Maid is compelling because it’s so personal. Land isn’t whining or blaming, she’s letting us into her life, sharing feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and desperation that come with trying so damn hard to do better and still living below the poverty line in spite of her efforts. Land has a hard life but she also has hope and resilience. She finds joy in small moments that are often overlooked in the distraction of material things. Maid is an important work of journalism that offers an insightful and unique perspective on a segment of the working poor from someone who has lived it. Seira Wilson



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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Many a writer has attempted to parse the 400 years of colonial/sectarian violence that preceded the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But Say Nothing shows young paramilitaries compelled by more recent, deeply personal history: an aunt who lost her eyes and hands while setting a bomb, peaceful marchers ambushed and stoned on a bridge. With no dog in the race, an outsider such as Keefe can recount with stark, rousing clarity the story of an IRA gunman trying not to scream as a doctor sews up his severed artery in the front room of a safe house while a British armored tank rumbles outside. Or describe how Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, came to be suspected of being an informer, a charge which led to her being taken from her home by the IRA one night in 1972, her young ones clinging to her legs. Hastened to her grave by a bullet to the back of her head, her bones lay buried on a remote beach for thirty years, years during which her children were left to live and work alongside neighbors they suspected, yet dared not accuse, of being responsible for her death. With the pacing of a thriller, and an intricate, yet compulsively readable storytelling structure, Keefe’s exhaustive reportage brings home the terror, the waste, and the heartbreaking futility of a guerrilla war fought in peoples’ homes as well as in the streets. And he captures the devastation of veterans on both sides, uneasily enjoying the peace that finally came while wondering if they had fought the good fight or been complicit in murder all along. Vannessa Cronin



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How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Most people will tell you that racism is all about hatred and ignorance. In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi's follow-up to his National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning, he explains that racism is ultimately structural. Racism directs attention away from harmful, inequitable policies and turns that attention on the people harmed by those policies. Kendi employs history, science, and ethics to describe different forms of racism; at the same time, he follows the events and experiences of his own life, adapting a memoir approach that personalizes his arguments. This is a very effective combination, fusing the external forces of racism with Kendi's own reception and responses to that racism—the result will be mind-expanding for many readers. Kendi's title encompasses his main thesis: simply not being racist isn't enough. We must actively choose to be "antiracist," working to undo racism and its component polices in order to build an equitable society. To read this book is to relate to the author as an individual and realize just how much we all have in common. As Kendi writes: race is a mirage, assigning an identity according to skin color, ignoring the individual. Chris Schluep



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Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom by Adam Chandler

Oh, fast food...that much maligned bastion of American eats that sprang to life with the birth of car culture and embedded itself in cities and towns across the United States. Fast food often gets a bad rap, but the truth is Americans still harbor a (sometimes secret) love for it. In Drive-Thru Dreams, Adam Chandler introduces us to the entrepreneurs, drop-outs, and dreamers who built empires out of nothing, and mentored others to follow in their footsteps. We meet the people who work in fast food restaurants and those who gather around their Formica tables— these are places where all share a common experience, rich or poor, young or old. Fast food has changed over the decades, including the re-branding of such establishments as quick-serve restaurants. Chandler looks at the evolution of the industry’s business models and menu items, from healthier options embraced (or shunned) by consumers to what you’ll find at franchises around the globe. Drive-Thru Dreams is a fascinating and incredibly fun read that will change the way you think about this most American of industries. Seira Wilson


==> Again, you can see the full list of our Best Nonfiction Books of 2019 here.



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